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Vermont lawmakers to take up open meeting law, release of information during criminal investigations

By Michael Donoghue, director, New England First Amendment Coalition

Vermont legislators returned to Montpelier in this month and began looking at several open government issues, including the final steps in a revised open meeting law and a clarification about the release of information during criminal investigations.

Vermont’s new governor, Peter Shumlin, new secretary of state, Jim Condos, and many key legislators came through last year on campaign promises to fight for a new Vermont public records law that provides taxpayers greater access while also holding the government financially responsible if it improperly withholds public records. The law approved mandatory legal fees if a citizen or group has to take a government entity to court to force compliance and substantially prevails.

The legislature was poised to pass the new open meeting law last year, but in the final days of the session it was put on the shelf after the Vermont Press Association and others noted the bill needed more tweaking.

While the current open meeting law requires some public notice of government meetings, agendas often are not required ahead of a meeting. Agendas are required only if requested in advance by a member of the media or the public. Supporters of an improved law say without an agenda taxpayers might never know a board is going to fire a police chief, town manager or school superintendent. The supporters of the new bill think agendas should be required at least two or three work days before a meeting and properly circulated. Also there is support to change the open meeting law to require minutes of executive sessions and also to improve minutes of regular meetings by requiring more details.

The Public Records Legislative Study Committee — three members of the Vermont Senate and three members of the Vermont House of Representatives — has been studying Vermont public records during the summer and fall. They will continue to look at them for the next two summers, including the roughly 260 exemptions that are sprinkled throughout the so-called “Green Books” that contain all of Vermont’s legislation. They will file a report in mid-January with the full legislature.

The panel, in response to a December 2011 Vermont Supreme Court decision, is expected to recommend that certain property tax information — even if it provides a hint about a homeowner’s income — should be a matter of public record. The town of Manchester refused to release certain information about tax rebates and prebates on the grounds that somebody could use a complicated formula to come close to figuring the income of a homeowner.

The legislature had been asked to make it confidential, but refused because lawmakers believed money being paid or credited to taxpayers should be public. The Vermont attorney general had maintained also that the lack of action to make it confidential showed the legislative intent was to make the record public. Now the legislature may pass such an act to make its intent clearer to the justices.

The Government Operations Committees on both sides of the statehouse are likely to punt one issue to their counterparts on the Judiciary Committees. The thorny issue is when and if records of criminal investigations should be made public. Some police officials maintain any call for service is a criminal investigation and sometimes refuse to acknowledge investigations even when photographs show three or four police cruisers at a scene and evidence being seized.

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